CLR Forum friend (and soon to be CLR Forum Guest) Mike Helfand has a very interesting post on PrawfsBlawg about a Florida court decision this month upholding an arbitration agreement between the Church of Scientology and two of its former members. The former members, whom the church expelled last year, alleged that the church had wrongfully retained more than $27,000 the members had given it. The church argued that this dispute fell within an arbitration agreement the former members had signed when they joined the church — there’s an interesting rite of initiation — and the court agreed. The former members would have to submit to arbitration, notwithstanding the fact that all the arbitrators, according to the agreement, must be Scientologists in good standing.
Mike’s post addresses the interesting First Amendment issues that lurk here, particularly the intersection with the church autonomy doctrine. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, he notes, a court can vacate an arbitration award that is tainted by fraud, misconduct and collusion. Under the church autonomy doctrine, however, it’s not so clear. Mike reads Supreme Court cases like Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich as insulating religious arbitration from judicial review for fraud and collusion. Milivojevich concerned the disciplining of a bishop, though, and I wonder if the Court would extend its language beyond the ministerial context – a question I’m sure Mike will address in subsequent posts.